William Fox was a Hungarian immigrant who did well. He built theaters all over the country in the 1920s, about 100 of them. Several of the finer ones survive. The one I’m most familiar with is in St. Louis. Others are in Atlanta, Detroit, Tucson, and Oakland. The original Fox Theater in Banning, CA is still a 3-screen movie theater. All have been restored. Most of Fox’s theaters have been demolished or repurposed. His empire, which included a motion picture making studio, was over by the 1930s, but his movie company evolved into 20th Century Fox and survives.
Most of the large Fox Theaters now anchor historic districts. The one in Atlanta began as a Shriners’ Temple. The super-ornate one in St. Louis on Grand Avenue, not downtown, that opened in 1929 was always an oversized movie theater that I attended many times during my youth because it was one of the first buildings in my city to have air conditioning. Restored by Mary Strauss, who reduced the number of seats by 500 to 4,500, it became a Broadway musical outlet and general performance venue. One of today’s superstars who performed here early in her career was Lady Gaga. Strauss lovingly kept all of its outrageous gaudiness, so this theater is known locally as The Fabulous Fox.
Ruth and I and our grandson took a tour of it in the summer of 2019 and reveled in its singular magnificence. Tours were give 3 times a week at the time, and we joined 14 other people to ogle Fox’s elephants, lions, monkeys, and peacocks; but they were only the beginning. Pointed out to all of us were scimitars, Vishnus, chandeliers. and thrones that showed how a showman could easily spend 6 million dollars on one theater. This theater still has, for example, a unique Wurlitzer organ. Only 4 others like it were built, and I remember hearing early TV celebrity Stan Kann play it flamboyantly. My mother was in media’ and Kann became a family friend who always showed up at our house with a vacuum cleaner or two.
Much of The Fox’s original details, like its staircases, were not altered during restoration. The main ceiling remains a faux Indian burial temple. The original water fountains are still in place as are lots of mirrors, but few of them are original. We were not at all surprised to learn on this tour that the Radio City Rockettes gave their first performances in St. Louis, not during our truly fabulous 90 minute tour but in 1925.